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South Dakota judge puts government ethics overhaul on hold

South Dakota judge puts government ethics overhaul on hold

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PIERRE | A South Dakota judge put on hold a voter-approved government ethics overhaul Thursday, handing a victory to foes who have criticized the wide-ranging new law as an unconstitutional, unworkable mess.

Circuit Judge Mark Barnett issued a preliminary injunction at the request of a group of two dozen Republican lawmakers and others who filed a lawsuit against the state challenging it. Barnett's decision to delay the law's implementation could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

"This is just a stop on the bus route," Barnett said. "This is going to a much higher power and a much higher pay grade than me."

Foes of the measure contend that provisions of the law including an ethics commission, public campaign funding and limitations on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers run afoul of the state or federal constitutions — or both. The decision is largely what those who brought the lawsuit expected and reflects "how poorly drafted the measure was," said GOP Rep. Mark Mickelson, a plaintiff.

Attorneys representing the state and sponsors of the ballot measure argued against the decision, saying that the measure is constitutional.

Supporters billed it to voters as an anti-corruption package. They successfully pitched that it would help improve transparency and empower regular people.

John Hinrichs, an attorney for the ballot measure supporters, said South Dakota would benefit from it.

"We hope that the people of the state continue to press for ethical reform and for meaningful measures that will hold state officials and legislators accountable and limit the influence of lobbyists and limit the influence of big money and wealthy contributors," he said.

Barnett also invited input on portions of the law that could be "saved," saying an injunction could be amended. Supporters plan to ask the judge to re-instate portions of the law not challenged by the plaintiffs, including lower caps on campaign contributions.

Even as the court challenge simmers, backers of the new law face another obstacle — Republicans in control of state government who loudly oppose it.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard proposed a budget plan this week that doesn't include millions of dollars of funding for a public campaign finance system established under the overhaul. The roughly $5 million cost next budget year would eat up significant revenue growth for other areas, he said, taking a detour in his budget speech to bash the new law.

Daugaard has said he'd support rolling back the measure if it isn't struck down in court. The governor views the order as a good step that will give the courts and the Legislature time to sort out the "mess," Chief of Staff Tony Venhuizen said in email.

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